Separating fact from error

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Will Rogers, the great humorist of nearly a century ago, used to say “All I know is what I read in the papers.” This was his way of saying that he learned the truth from the newspapers, which was ironic even then. Just about every form of news, if properly scrutinized, has the potential for opinions that are stated as facts, misinformation, and plain old errors. So are our genealogy sources!

All we know is what we read in our genealogy sources, and we have to learn which sources we can trust and which we cannot. Since we cannot go back in time to verify in person what happened, we have to use what these sources give us. However, we need to be aware that there is the potential for error and it can affect our research.

We have to remember that there are two major reasons why some information on official documents can be inaccurate. We have the language barrier when immigrants are speaking to Americans who happen to be government clerks who write the documents. We also have the wrong people giving information.

I have written in many columns about the difficulty of spelling proper names correctly in American documents, usually because the person whose document it is speaks another language. This person is usually telling a government clerk the information for the document. Frequently, the immigrant cannot read or write. If they were still in Italy, they would be speaking to an Italian city clerk and that person would know the names and would know how to spell them. The Chicago clerk, among others, might not know this and would guess. And our Italian habit of dropping vowels from the ends of words makes it even more incorrect. One naturalization paper of a relative of mine from “Triggiano” listed the birthplace as “Tree John”! They may pronounce it this way amongst their own people, but the clerk doesn’t know it ends in a “o” and that it is spelled with two “g”s and no “j”s.

Then there is the informant. Sounds like a spy for the CIA! In genealogy documents, the informant is the person who tells the clerk what happened, to whom, and when. We cannot always trust them, for no other reason than they are not closely related to the people they are informing about.

Birth certificates are known to be the most trusted documents, because the baby that was born has not yet had time to lie about his or her age! But can we trust the information in birth certificates? Not always. If we go back to a simpler time, we have to deal with two facts. Fact 1: The mother just gave birth and is not in the mood to drive over to the city clerk’s office to report the birth. Fact 2: her husband has to work seven days a week and does not have time either. So who goes to city hall? Sometimes, when they bothered to go at all, it was a midwife who delivered the baby in the mother’s home. She has not just given birth and may not have to deliver another baby that day. However, since she may not be a blood relation to the couple who just had the baby, she may be telling the clerk information that is not always 100% accurate. Combine that with the language barrier we discussed earlier and you can see how inaccurate a birth certificate can be. Would the midwife know the mother’s maiden name? Her age? His age? Birthplace? If the midwife is from the same town in Italy as the couple, you have a better chance that the data will be correct. If the midwife is from a different province than the couple in question, they might not even be able to communicate in the correct dialect!

Then there are the census records. When the census taker shows up in our family tenement, it is inevitable that mom is at the market and dad is at work and the kids are at school. So the neighbor in the other apartment tells the census taker the names of all the people. Then she tells the census taker the ages of all the family members. Unless she is related to the other family, she may not always know. The ages for the kids are a little easier to guess, since they are of different heights and in different grades in school and, from that, one can guess a little. The ages of the parents, however, can be all over the map! I have seen, just recently, the same woman age three years in three ten-year censuses!! The husband aged about 15 years total when he should have aged twenty years. If your family lived in a self-contained house, the census taker had to keep coming back until someone was home. Hopefully they didn’t ask the next door neighbor! But most of our immigrant ancestors’ families were living in multi-family dwellings when they lived in Chicago. In some cases, we could be lucky that the building contains three families all related to each other. Then there is a better chance for more accurate information. But when the landlord is the one listing everyone who lives in his tenement, who knows how accurate it can be.

The 1940 census recognized this problem and made a special distinction on the census records. The informant for each family is checked off with an x inside of a circle. This means that this was the person who gave the census taker the data. So if the 9 year old daughter is the family informant, the data might not be very good. You can see who the informant is, and make a judgment based on that.

And, of course, death certificates are usually the least accurate when it comes to the birth and parents, but the most accurate when it comes to the information about the death itself. The informant is listed on the certificate and frequently it is a hospital employee who pulls records from a file. If the person was hospitalized for a long time, there might be time to get better data. If the person is brought in and dies quickly, the data may be very inaccurate because there is no one who can remember these details under the duress of bringing a loved one to the hospital. Always look at the informant’s name on a death certificate and make your own conclusion about the accuracy of what’s in the “papers”.

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!


About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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